Prestigious research awards pay scholars less than minimum wage

Researchers at more than 40 universities held walkouts to draw attention to current funding levels making higher education inaccessible.

Graduate students and post-doctoral scholars abandoned their labs at the University of Manitoba Monday, calling on Ottawa to top up prestigious research awards, the majority of which have remained unchanged for 20 years and are now the equivalent of poverty-line salaries.

Support Our Science, a national advocacy campaign, has formed out of academics’ building frustrations about stagnant scholarship dollars and inflationary pressures.

“It’s a struggle. I worked it out and if I was to work a 40-hour week, it would be equivalent to making about $10 an hour,” said Levi Newediuk, describing his PhD salary via the sum he won to do research at the U of M.

“But, of course, we don’t work 40-hour weeks — we’re working more than that.”

On International Workers’ Day, researchers at more than 40 universities held simultaneous walkouts to draw attention to their concerns that current funding levels are making higher education inaccessible and causing brain drain.

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The campaign’s demands target Tri-Council, an umbrella term that refers to the three main granting agencies: the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Recipients of the Canada Graduate Scholarship Masters and Postgraduate Scholarship Doctoral receive annual sums of $17,500 and $21,000, respectively. Those allotments have been intact since 2003.

The highly competitive awards, which are meant to cover a recipient’s tuition and living expenses for an entire year so they can focus on their research, set the benchmark for research funding across the country.

Citing that reality, organizers are demanding increases to the value and number of Tri-Council scholarships and fellowships, which they say will trickle down and result in hiked ceilings for other awards, and raise related research grants so professors can offer higher wages.

Associate professor Colin Garroway noted members of his current research team earn the same amount of money as he did when he started pursuing graduate studies. The cost of living has increased about 50 per cent during that period.

“It was great in 2005. It’s below the poverty line today, and it’s really, really difficult to attract students within Canada and to Canada with this pay because other countries are paying more than double, in some instances,” said Garroway, who was one of more than 150 individuals who rallied at U of M’s Fort Garry campus Monday.

Federal politicians’ claims that the 2023 budget will drive innovation and research “ring entirely hollow,” given it does not address the dollars that support the scholars who are almost entirely responsible for producing research at universities such as U of M, he added.

Scientists rallied on Parliament Hill in support of the cause before the 2022-23 school year got underway. The group later submitted a petition outlining their demands.

In October 2022, the government launched a panel to probe ways to modernize the federal system that supports academic research. Ottawa recently released the final report, including the authors’ conclusion that the future of Canada’s research landscape is bleak in contrast to the commitments that peer countries and competitors have made.

“While Canadians can be rightfully proud of their country’s achievements in science, technology, research and innovation, we currently find ourselves in a precarious situation,” the report states.

It recommends core funding for granting councils be “significantly increased” to address the growth of graduate students, the effects of inflation and “the importance of nurturing a globally competitive research and talent base.”

“Canada wants to be on the forefront of science and research, and all of these students and post-docs standing here are the ones who are putting those papers out, who are putting in the work, and we should be supporting them so that we can be (there),” said PhD student Teassa MacMartin, surrounded by protesters Monday.

MacMartin said prestigious prizes may look great on a resumé, but the reality is that they do not currently allow students to “put all of ourselves into our work.”

The U of M researcher, who is the primary caregiver of her 10-year-old, currently works as a tutor and teaching assistant to supplement her income.

The office of MP François-Philippe Champagne, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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